The source of this article is unknown, although it is probably from the Buffalo News, from sometime in the 1980s. Transcribed by Karen Meisenheimer. Learn more at the Genesee Country Village and Museum website.
Village Stops in Time
By BEN FANTON
Special to the News
Sometimes the pace of the ’80s can get to you. All of the little daily annoyances – the traffic jams, blaring boom boxes and the general gloom and doom of the nightly news broadcasts – build up to the point where you feel like climbing the walls, screaming or retreating to the solitude of the closet for a week.
Or maybe the blahs and blues of everyday annoyances set you to daydreaming about what it would be like to go back a hundred or so years in time when life moved at a slower pace. Back then, people did things like sitting on the front porch in a rocking chair and drinking lemonade as they watched the world go leisurely by. Things were slower and less hectic. Probably this 19th century setting sounds like someplace you might like to visit if it didn’t exist only in daydreams.
It doesn’t and you can. Giving visitors a chance to spend a day in the 19th century is what Genesee Country Village and Museum, located in Mumford, 20 miles south of Rochester, is all about.
The whole thing started back in 1966 because of the concerns of founder John L. Wehle that the way of life of the average person in the 19th century was disappearing. The lifestyles of the rich and powerful of the era had been pretty well-documented but not that of the ordinary person who lived in a small upstate New York town. For the next 10 years, Wehle and his staff scoured the Western New York countryside to acquire examples of 19th century village architecture. The buildings, many of which were about ready to give up the ghost and fall to ruins, were carefully taken apart and brought to a 200 acre site in the southwestern corner of Monroe County where they were reassembled and restored. When the facility opened in 1976, it was complete with furnishings and artifacts of the period and costumed interpreters to recreate the way of life that Wehle felt was vanishing with the passage of time.
“A lot of museums concentrate on 1- to 5- year span of time,” says museum spokesman Jo Betz. “We cover and interpret a 70- year period.” That they do adds a lot to the interest and provides a lesson in understanding what progress is.
Every generation tends to view itself as the most enlightened ever, and the notion of progress is something that the 20th century likes to make an exclusive claim to, given the dramatic changes in such aspects of life as transportation and medicine. Folks back in the 19th century made progress too, and the Genesee Country Village and Museum illustrates this quite well.
For the pioneers who came to the region in the early 1800s, life was brutal and survival required them to do battle with the land as opposed to reaping any vast rewards from it. Trees had to be cleared and the first order of business was to use them to make a one-room cabin. The 1806 cabin at the museum quickly dispels any notions of the romance involved in actually living in such a structure.
The cabin is cramped, crude and dark. A costumed interpreter cooks a simple meal of chicken and vegetables on an open hearth. Bereft of modern kitchen ventilation systems to whisk away fumes, the smoke from open wood fire hangs in the air, stinging the eyes. The little light that enters the cabin’s small windows only seems to highlight the crudeness of the cramped space. Imagining what life was like for the family that inhabited the structure gives a real meaning to the term “pioneer spirit.”
A little of 20 years later, people of the region were a lot better off in terms of the quality of life thanks in part to the economic boom that followed the completion of the Erie Canal. A visit to the Livingston-Backus House built in 1827 and reassembled in 1970 makes the point very nicely.
Beautifully decorated and furnished large open rooms with sunlight streaming in through many windows offer a stark contrast to the one-room log cabin. Other homes at the village demonstrate the progress of the period, and many of them indicate that Greek Revival was a big hit.
Two homes that were not built in the Greek Revival style but are architecturally outstanding are the Hamilton House, an 1870 Victorian Italianate mansion brought in from Campbell, and the unusual Octagon House, which was also built in 1870 in Friendship.
The Octagon House, as its name suggests, shows an eight-sided exterior to the world. It was the 1848 brainchild of Genesee County native Orson Squire Fowler, who envisioned this type of dwelling to be a “home for all.” Fowler’s other interests included phrenology, clairvoyance, vegetarianism, temperance and issuing warnings against the wearing of too tight clothing.
In addition to showing how people lived during the 19th century, the village shows how they made a living. Early towns in the region were usually haphazard affairs that sprang up where roads happened to intersect. A would-be tavern keeper might construct an inn and other tradesmen would follow in locating their establishments nearby. Soon, the crossroads would be the site of a village with shops and services such as those demonstrated at the Genesee Country Village.
“We have a blacksmith and a tinsmith and a gunsmith,” Betz says, “but we don’t have and probably never will have a silversmith because there wouldn’t have been that type of craft in a small upstate New York village at that time.” The village boasts a goodly assortment of businesses such as a general store, pharmacy, print shop, brewery and pottery, with some of them staffed by interpreters who provide information about the particular trade or craft as it was practiced in the 19th century.
The activities of the interpreters at the village do much to dispel any dry museum atmosphere that might otherwise prevail if the location was only a series of 19th century buildings with no people. Throughout the village, the clang of the blacksmith’s hammer on iron and the whirr of the spinning wheel can be heard.
An additional feature is several “antique gardens” that contain only flowers, herbs and vegetables grown during the period.
The Genesee Country Village and Museum is open daily throughout the May 9 to Oct. 18 season and features many special days and events. Admission is $7.50 for adults and $3.50 for children ages 6-14. Two restaurants and a tavern are available as is a free picnic area.
Maps and directions to the museum are available at Thruway exits 47 (Leroy) and 46 (Rochester). It is located 20 minutes west of Avon exit of Intestate 390.